A phrase that used to pop up on peak oil blogs was the clever euphemism “priced out of the food market” – neoliberalspeak for something much simpler in humans terms – starved.
Water: The Dry Facts isn’t quite that blunt, but I read the same thinking behind it.
We’ve covered water stress here, most notably in Yemen, Lebanon, and the Tigris & Euphrates basin. One of the biggest issues is efficiency – Cold War era civil engineering projects lose half the water they handle in some places and Egypt is covering open canals to prevent high losses due to evaporation. We have to get better at protecting fresh water, since there are more of us and less of it to go around.
The key to managing water better is to price it properly, giving consumers a reason not to waste it and investors an incentive to build infrastructure to supply it. Vast sums are needed: over $26 trillion between 2010 and 2030, by one estimate. Before water can be properly priced, however, it needs to be clear who owns it (or, more precisely, who has the right to extract how much from rivers, aquifers and so on). Australia has led the way in creating such a system of tradable water rights.
And there it is – the inevitable free market fairy dust. They suggest a blockchain solution, which would more more transparent and less susceptible to fiddling, but my initial thesis holds – some people and the environments they inhabit will be priced out of the market.
One of the mistakes free market fairy dust pushers make is the failure to account for what they call ‘externalities’. If you can sell an acre foot of water today for $100 that’s great, never mind the $10,000 in economic activity downstream that won’t be happening because of this, and definitely don’t worry about entire ecosystems collapsing because we’re using all precipitation and over drafting groundwater.
Water is easily understood as a liquid resource that can be pumped, stored, and used for a variety of activities. But here in California Mother Nature has been showing us who is in charge – years of blistering drought, a failed El Niño, and then a mixed blessing/curse in the form of a massive Pineapple Express that nearly blew out the Oroville Dam.
Writing this pulls me out of reality and into recalling a work by one of my favorite authors, Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids. I’ve only read this book twice and I did so in rapid succession, buying it in hardback when it came out in 2009. Distraction, another favorite of mine by the same author, is a book about the day after tomorrow, while Caryatids is about a world our grandchildren may experience.
I feel like I should have some sort of rousing conclusion for this, but every line of thought leads to more questions than answers. I guess this is a sort of mental milestone, a place I’ll revisit at some time in the future when some of the fog clears.